Since the Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA) declared that schools are required to implement a new role titled “Learning Specialists,” many questions have been raised in schools about what this role actually is. How is it different to a Leading Teacher for example? Can our existing Leading Teachers just be Learning Specialists too? Do we need Learning Specialists if we already have Leading Teachers who are tagged to Literacy or Numeracy or Curriculum?
As a principal faced with implementing this new role, I have to admit my own understanding of the role was hazy as best. It has been through rigorous discussion with the team behind Bastow’s Leading Excellence in Classroom Practice program (LECP- a course designed to support Learning Specialists to maximize their influence levels and impact in their school) that I have been able to develop a clearer understanding of what is, essentially, a critical role in the Department of Education’s improvement agenda in schools.
It was when I watching a video of Dr Steven Katz, used in the LECP course, that it dawned on me what the role of the Learning Specialist really is: Learning Specialists are the old guys who work in Bunnings. You know the ones, the semi-retired builders, plumbers, plasterers and gardeners who walk up and down the aisles and help you work out what you need to buy to get your job done.
The key thing about these guys (and women) is that they’re practicing specialists in their field and they’re usually still engaged in that field on a part time basis- so they have their finger on the pulse. They know which tools and approaches are being used in the real world, they know which ones are effective and which ones aren’t. These guys haven’t come out of the working world and moved into a management role in the store, looking at admin or working on the registers, their trade is their specialty and that is what they stick to.
When you walk in to Bunnings you don’t walk in asking for a random new tool, you go in with an outcome in mind and you seek the old guy’s help to work out which tool/approach would help you to reach the outcome in the most efficient and effective manner. Sure, the Bunnings guy hasn’t used every tool on the shelves and he may have his favourites, but he draws on his wide experience to help inform his recommendations. He may even do demo lessons or run mini clinics that customers self-select into; ‘want to know how to tile your bathroom? There will be a clinic this Saturday.’ He doesn’t round up every customer in the shop and insist they sit through his tiling clinic, as he knows they will all have their own focus and needs and his job is to help those people within his specialist area.
Like old Bunnings guys, Learning Specialist are specialists in the field of teaching and learning (potentially in a specific area) and, to be most effective in supporting others, their job too is to walk the aisles and assist their peers to achieve tasks and outcomes by introducing them to appropriate tools/strategies and approaches and maybe even to model or run mini clinics for them. Learning Specialists influence from within the teaching group in a school and don’t get caught up working on the registers or even stocking the shelves. (This is a very important point for the success of this role!)
This is where the role of the Leading Teacher differs for me.
Leading Teachers may one day see themselves as store managers or area managers. They dip their toe in the water of learning the management and leadership related skills that will one day help them in this quest. Sure, they may be experts in teaching and learning, but ultimately, they may no longer even walk the aisles (they may be pulled out of the classroom full time) as their role becomes one more targeted at overall strategy, coaching and, to some degree, admin.
When I visited Singapore back in 2012, I was really impressed with the explicit Leadership Pathways the Ministry of Education had outlined for their educators (see below). They acknowledged that some of their educators would aspire to be principals, some would aspire to be specialists or maybe even policy developers etc and some would aspire to be the very best teachers they could be. Every one of these pathways was seen as equally noble. I feel as if the introduction of the Learning Specialist role is a strong step by the DET towards a similar model.
In order to successfully assist the customers in their aisle, Learning Specialists need to:
- Have a deep knowledge of their own strengths and areas for improvement as an educator.
- Have the self-reflection skills to critically evaluate why they teach in a certain way, why they make the decisions they do in their class and how these decisions impact the social, emotional and academic learning of their students.
- Continually ensure their focus is on building the capacity from within the teaching staff (and push back when others are tempted to pull them away from this focus).
- Eat the appropriate lunch to remain authentic: the good old Bunnings sausage (ok, so maybe this is more a perk than an essential skill).
In order to enable and empower the Learning Specialist to help build capacity from the inside out, principals and leadership teams need to:
- Ensure they keep the main thing the main thing for Learning Specialists-(i.e their SOLE focus needs to be on “modelling excellence in teaching and learning through demonstration lessons, and mentoring and coaching teachers in improving the skill, knowledge and effectiveness of the teaching workforce”.(VGSA2017)
- Build the capacity of the Learninf Specialists by enrolling them in the Leading Excellence in Classroom Practice course at Bastow and then quarantining time for them to engage in the work of the course.
- Resisting the temptation to take all of our state’s best teachers out of the classroom (where we need them).
And finally, a reminder of the role description that can be found in the VGSA:
“Learning Specialists will be highly skilled classroom practitioners who continue to spend the majority of their time in the classroom delivering high-quality teaching and learning and have a range of responsibilities related to their expertise, including teaching demonstration lessons, observing and providing feedback to other teachers and facilitating school-based professional learning.
Learning Specialists are expected to have deep knowledge and expertise in high quality teaching and learning in delivering improved achievement, engagement and wellbeing for students. The role of the Learning Specialist will be to model excellence in teaching and learning through demonstration lessons, and mentoring and coaching teachers in improving the skill, knowledge and effectiveness of the teaching workforce.”